True Highlands Blog
The stones and rocks that form our landscape us tell us more than just geological tales. Some are like living memorials to a strange part of our history. They tell of myths, legends and ancient traditions, unexplained mysteries and superstition. Here are just a few Scottish stones with stories to tell.
“The Men” must have been a strange sight in Scotland in the 19th century. These Gaelic speaking Calvinist saints, known for their distinctive appearance and piety would frequently come into conflict with the church establishment due to their belief in the supernatural. One strange legacy of this conflict is the legend of the Spey Stone. One of the most notable of “The Men”, William Grant of Slochd, was renowned for his gift of second sight. On his deathbed a vision instructed him to commemorate a miracle which occurred on the banks of the Spey at Boat of Garten some centuries before. The original legend tells of a dying woman longing to cross the river, to be buried next to her lover, and the Spey parting just like the red sea under the command of Moses, thus allowing her coffin to be transported across. In 1865, shortly after William Grant’s death a stone was duly erected at the site of this miracle with inscriptions in both English and Gaelic. Herein lies the crux of the conflict with the local Free Church. Nobody believed that the church could perform such miracles, but they did believe in the power of “The Men”, and this stone was a constant reminder of that. Fears grew among the clergy that people were visiting the area to worship the stone itself, until, under cover of darkness in 1867 it was smashed and cast into the Spey by persons unknown. The story however does not end there, in fact the final chapter may not yet be written. In a fortunate coincidence, the precise location where the stone stood was recorded on the very first ordnance survey map of the area. Using this information a historian claimed in the 60s to have found its remains at the bottom of the river, locals in the area are however still wary of the supposed curse attached to it. Kelpies are said to guard its watery resting place but every few years when the river runs really low it is said that the stone and the inscription upon it are exposed once again, a fleeting visual reminder of the religious power struggles of the era.
The Cochno stone is the finest example of Bronze Age cup and ring engravings anywhere in Europe. This massive stone, over 42 foot long was lost, then discovered in 1887, then lost again. Deliberately. Incredibly, this stunning, scheduled monument, located on the edge of a Clydebank housing estate was buried in the 1960s for its own protection and then promptly forgotten about. Its location is not a secret but all there is to see there now is an overgrown field. Fortunately old photos do exist of this 5,000 year old wonder but the intervening years have not yielded any significant theories as to what the stone actually represents. Some people think that of it as a map showing the other settlements in the Clyde Valley others believe it’s a portal, of life and death, rebirth, a womb and a tomb. It is also possible the stone had been used in sacrificial ceremonials, with milk or blood poured into the grooves and channels as offerings, or that the markings were astronomical maps, showing constellations that guided prehistoric farmers’ crop sewing. The four-toed footprints delicately etched into the surface have also puzzled archaeologists and fired up conspiracy theorists. Plans have been mooted for some time for an excavation, analysis and reinternment, maybe this will wield some answers. Either way it seems a shame that locals are deemed untrustworthy enough for it to be on permanent display.
The Odin Stone is another lost piece of our history that survives only in the writings of the day. Located north of Steness on Orkney this huge monolith was pierced by a large hole and played a central part in traditional Orcadian wedding rituals until 1814 when it was destroyed by a farmer who leased the land on which it stood. The farmer, who was not a native Orcadian was angered by the damage the numbers of visitors to his property was doing, so he smashed the stone and used it to construct a byre. Such was the reaction by the local population he was lucky to escape alive and further damage to the surrounding megaliths was averted. The ritual associated with the stone would involve lovers clasping hands through the hole and swearing their everlasting love. The “Oath of Odin” was then said and the contract was binding forever. A footnote to the story of the infamous tale of the Orkney pirate John Gow tells us just how seriously these vows were taken. While Gow was in Stromness in the early 1700s he supposedly fell in love with the daughter of a local merchant. In keeping with tradition, they went to the Odin Stone and took their vows. Soon after, Gow was captured, tried and transported to London to be hanged. His wife is said to have travelled all the way to London in order to touch the hand of his corpse to release herself from their binding oath. The journalist covering the trial at the time was none other than Daniel Defoe who would later immortalise the story in one of his novels.
In contrast to the above, the Newton Stone is intact and accessible. What makes it so wonderfully enigmatic is that despite it being the focus of much academic research over the course of the 200 years since its discovery, nobody really has any idea what its purpose is. This pillar, which was discovered in Aberdeenshire contains two inscriptions, the first is in Ogham, a medieval alphabet used to write the early Irish language, the second has never been identified. If scholars have not even been able to work out what language the second inscription is then any chance of it being translated must be very slim indeed. Despite 200 years of effort and all the research possibilities that modern technologies offer the mystery of this ancient message, written in an unknown alphabet is still unsolved.
I guess some stones still have stories yet to tell.Tags: archaeology, bronze age, cochno stone, cup and ring engravings, newton stone, odin stone, ogham writing, orcadian wedding ritual, orkney archaeology, scottish myths and legends, scottish stones, spey stone, standing stones